Where Learners Go

How to strengthen the library role in online learning Libraries have traditionally played an important role in supplying high-quality information services and products used by people seeking to learn. They have always provided facilities that promote and encourage learning. The Internet has transformed the American culture into a learning society, an anytime, anywhere cornucopia of learning opportunities. The Internet gives the public a very available, encyclopedic source of information. With the Internet at home, school, work, or through a library, it is simple for anyone to look up virtually any topic and immediately find many resources that offer relevant information in just a few clicks. This accessibility is seen by librarians as both a threat and an opportunity. Libraries have been the obvious place to continue or extend learning beyond the formal classroom. Now the Internet is a strong competitor as "the place" to go for information to support learning. According to Steve Jones (The Internet Goes to College, Pew Internet & American Life Project, www.pewinternet.org), only nine percent of college students use the library more than the Internet for information searching. It is crucial that librarians who are committed to maintaining and expanding their role and the role of libraries in the new learning process via the Internet ensure that their web presence engages those new learners. They must develop content and services that have more affinity with the style of people who work in a multimedia world and spend much of their communication and work time online. Librarians must experiment with new ways to connect the library and the Internet for learning. This is true both in formal learning linked to a curriculum for people of all ages and in informal learning that helps citizens become informed on everything from politics and the environment to technology, business, and culture. Librarians must make certain the library is visible in the Internet venues where today's learners are likely to congregate.

New kinds of access

By providing access to licensed electronic resources, libraries enrich the range of information available to users. Library web sites, especially those of colleges and universities, carry extensive listings of the databases, e-journals, and other online databanks licensed to them. Some libraries go further and highlight quality, freely available Internet materials. Most libraries could do more, however, to help users reach high-caliber Internet resources particularly useful for learning. They could promote such resources in special sections of their web site, labeled with clear icons providing clues to the nature of the content. The typical library web site depends on two linear, text-driven vehicles for discovery of information: the online catalog and a listing of subject categories for online resources. Both require that users follow many steps before they reach the actual information they seek. New vehicles for providing access to information are being tried in some libraries. David Walker, web development librarian, California State University - San Marcos, has created a prototype RSS feed for journals subscribed to by his library (http://public.csusm.edu/dwalker/rss.htm). I discovered Walker via the Shifted Librarian blog (www.theshiftedlibrarian.com). Libraries should consider more visual cues, particularly for hot topics, enticing learners to explore what the library has to offer. The Los Angeles Public Library does a good job with its "teen stuff" web site (www.lapl.org/teenscape/stuff.html), using bright colors, effective graphics, and terminology designed to engage students. Another easy way to give users an idea of the types of resources available through the library is to highlight one on a rotating basis on the library's homepage, which many libraries already do. In a redesign of its library homepage, Columbia University offers a "featured resource" prominent placement (www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb). "Access, not ownership," a clear theme of today's libraries, means they increasingly rely on information resources not physically located at the library, such as databases and e-journals. Libraries are comfortable selecting these online holdings and include them in their catalogs and listings on their web sites, but they neglect to acknowledge many other high-quality web riches that are freely available. For example, libraries could link to or promote educational lectures on video, freely available through such sources as MITWorld (http://mitworld. mit.edu/index.php), a professional education program from MIT's School of Engineering, that includes full video lectures of MIT professors on such topics as "Form from the Formless: The Awesome Power of the Embryo" or "Human Cloning and Human Rights." These lectures would be excellent items to support student work on term papers and also appeal to the general public. Similarly, the Research Channel web site offers freely available video programs on a wide range of topics from leading research institutions (www.researchchannel.org). If these were available as monographs via approval plans, they would be cataloged in academic libraries. We need a new process for the selection and promotion of Internet resources that takes into account the rich materials available. It is difficult to find collections of learning objects, digital materials that faculty can use in their instruction, via many library catalogs and lists of databases. Even such major collections of learning objects as the National Science Digital Library (NSDL, www.nsdl.org) and MERLOT (www.merlot.org) are invisible on most academic library web sites. There should be a clear mechanism by which teachers can find these collections via their home libraries. Libraries should also keep up with services for the kinds of technology their users employ. A small number of libraries, such as the University of Alberta, are providing content configured for PDAs (www.library.ualberta.ca/pdazone/index.cfm). Public libraries should consider what types of services they can offer that are geared to users of cell phones, now ubiquitous, especially among teens.

Emphasizing community

There is increasing attention to learning as a social activity. My own work ("Net Generation Students and Libraries," in Educating the Net Generation, edited by Diana G. and James L. Oblinger, www.educause.edu/educatingthenetgen) showed that many NetGen students are used to, even prefer, working in groups rather than individually. People seek connections with others in both informal and formal learning situations. Some libraries encourage community through their web sites. At the Fairfax County, VA, web site, a prominent box on the library system's homepage highlights a "one community, one book" project. On the project's web site for the book program, there are links to the copy information from the online catalog as well as links to events related to the book that will take place in libraries. The web site also links to a blog for discussion of the book's themes. This kind of activity blends traditional print (the book selected for discussion) with onsite, face-to-face activities in the library and an online discussion. It provides both a new level of service for users and a catalyst for community building, marrying the best of the print and online worlds. The University of Minnesota Libraries hosts blogs for members of the university community by members of the community in order to promote "teaching and learning, scholarly communication, and individual expression" (http://blog.lib.umn.edu). A new feature is the ability to link podcasts to blog postings. These kinds of services provide new learning opportunities for their creators and readers and an enriched array of media for individuals with various learning styles.

More library visibility

OCLC's Lorcan Dempsey ("Intermediate Consumers," LJ netConnect, Summer 2005) makes the case that library services must be available outside of our standard integrated library systems so that users can access them more conveniently. One reason Google Scholar and Google Print are so important is that they reach learners where they choose to look for information. Dempsey describes the "intermediate consumers" of library services such as learning management systems, RSS aggregators, portals, and search engines, which all have the capability of leading a wide range of users to library resources. There are many other ways libraries can increase the visibility of their content and services. For example, academic libraries should partner with other departments in the college or university or other community agencies or businesses to market themselves. Many universities have writing programs that assist students with writing papers. Not many, however, include descriptions of library content and services on their web sites. One exemplary exception is Dartmouth, which promotes library resources via its writing center's web pages (www.dartmouth.edu/~writing/materials/student/toc.shtml). Posters, bookmarks, or printed guides to Internet resources can be posted and distributed in venues where people go looking for information, such as medical facilities, government offices, and schools. Such guides help market library content and services and advertise the expertise of librarians as selectors of quality Internet information resources. Libraries must actively request placement of links to their homepages from resources where they think members of their constituency are likely to be in cyberspace. In universities and colleges, there is increasing realization that libraries must be more visible in learning management or course management systems (CMS). The CMS software infrastructure delivers the syllabus, grades, and other information for a specific course and links to resources and communication services such as group discussions and email. In some projects, libraries prepare guides to information resources for specific courses within the CMS, and others use seamless linking of e-reserves to CMS. Librarians can become more visible within CMS by asking to have their background and contact information, as well as a photo, included on staff information pages of courses that have assignments that involve the library. In "Becoming Part of the Course," Christopher Cox suggests that librarians can also create a forum in the discussion areas of CMS course sites where students can discuss their experiences doing assignments and the librarian can add his or her comments (C&RL News, Jan. 2002).

Teaching students to learn

A specific learning role of the library is to teach members of the user community how to access and use information resources efficiently and effectively. Today it is important to teach users how to develop new information products, since many are both users and creators of information. Libraries with a strong commitment to information literacy assist their users in evaluating the quality of information resources. For example, the University of Washington Libraries' online guide to evaluating Internet resources and web pages gives advice on finding the best sites for a topic (www.lib.washington.edu/help/howdoi). The web page "The Teaching Library" at the University of California - Berkeley highlights its information literacy program, guides to information on a variety of topics, and links to specific course sites (www.lib.berkeley.edu/TeachingLib). Some universities have online information literacy tutorials. An even broader role for libraries in this time is to provide a forum for the issues at the core of the information society, e.g., access to information, intellectual property, and privacy. Although libraries are clearly committed to a strong role in the Internet learning environment, there is much more to be done to increase their value to learners. Promoting and featuring more kinds of library content, employing more visual cues to bring attention to resources likely to appeal to learners, and developing new mechanisms of access will enhance the role of libraries in learning. Libraries, by building new services that leverage the social nature of learning, can blend their online services with their physical environment. They can become the place where learners go.
Joan K. Lippincott, Ph.D., is Associate Executive Director, Coalition for Networked Information, Washington, DC
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